Colin Little’s lifetime of memories as Caulfield shuts to training

9 min read
This week sees the last remaining stables leave Caulfield forever, with the racecourse closing its doors to training for the first time in over a century. Few trainers have been as entrenched at Caulfield as Colin Little, who will move his last few horses out of Lord Lodge on Monday.

This week, Caulfield Racecourse will fall silent to early morning trackwork for the first time in over 100 years. In late 2018, the Melbourne Racing Club (MRC) announced it had secured the next 65 years of horse racing at the venue, but its 22 resident trainers and all horses would have to vacate.

The MRC’s lease was conditional on the public gaining greater access to the racecourse reserve and, as such, the everyday training of horses would have to stop. Trainers were given five years initially to relocate, and a later financial incentive to be gone within three.

Caulfield Racecourse in 2002 | Image courtesy of Sportpix

The result this week has been the final few sessions of early morning trackwork across the racecourse. Over the next few days, trainers will truck their last remaining horses to new accommodations and, after that, the gear will follow. The racecourse will be silent to the everyday morning clamour that comes with horses in residence.

It’s an enormous change for a suburb whose identity has been entrenched in racing.

The first tract of land was put aside at Caulfield for horse racing in March 1859, when the ground was so neglected that it was described as little better than a shallow railway cutting. In a short time, its first trustees improved the racecourse considerably until the Victorian Amateur Turf Club (VATC) was established in 1875, and the first meeting was held at the course in August 1876.

However, even in those days, there was grappling about the future of Caulfield’s real estate.

The then Victorian Crown Solicitor, Roderick Sutherland, wrote to the Government in 1881, recommending that a lease of only 21 years be granted to the VATC. He said that, in time, the land would become too valuable to use as a racecourse, and the Club should consider a second course at a greater distance from metropolitan Melbourne.

The shenanigans continued well into the twentieth century.

In 1922, local residents were leaning on the VATC to relinquish its lease of the land, which didn’t happen. The following year, an application was submitted for a lease of 150 acres of Caulfield Racecourse to bore for oil and petroleum, which also didn’t happen.

Caulfield Racecourse, image taken in 1930 by Daniel Charles Pratt | Image courtesy of Caulfield Racecourse Reserve

But in 2021 the change has finally, partially happened, and Caulfield will shortly close an enormous chapter of its history. Horses like Wakeful (Trenton {NZ}), Patrobas and Phar Lap (NZ) (Night Raid {GB}) were trained at this track in its earlier days, and then later the likes of Surround (NZ) (Sovereign Edition {Ire}), Gurner’s Lane (NZ) (Sir Tristram {Ire}) and Zeditave.

In recent history, Typhoon Tracy (Red Ransom {USA}) and Black Caviar (Bel Esprit) were residents at the course, as were such training names as Cecil Godby, Angus Armanasco and Peter Moody. Among those who have had to relocate this year is the Mick Price-Michael Kent Jnr yard and the Ciaron Maher-David Eustace operation.

“There is certainly a sense of mourning around Caulfield as its life as a training centre comes to a close,” said Jake Norton, the MRC’s executive director of Racing and Operations. “From Hall of Famers to the luminaries of today, and from equine icons like Lord and Black Caviar, ‘the Heath’ has contributed enormously to the fabric of Australian racing.”

“There is certainly a sense of mourning around Caulfield as its life as a training centre comes to a close.” - Jake Norton

Norton said the silver lining has been the lengthy lease the MRC has managed to secure, which will guarantee the racecourse as a home to racing for generations to come.

“We’ll turn our attention to that in the near future, but for now we’re dealing with the sadness of farewelling the hundreds of brilliant people and horses that have called Caulfield home,” Norton said. “And we’ll continue to cheer bloody hard for them.”

Caulfield born and bred

Among those people is trainer Colin Little, who has lived at Lord Lodge along Booran Road, Caulfield East, since 1986.

Colin Little | Image courtesy of Sportpix

The old Victorian home, with its stalls, fig tree and brick pathways, is heritage listed, built in 1890 by trainer John Leek and now a remnant of the late Victorian era. It was called ‘Moidart’ when it housed Wakeful, and later trustees included trainers Ken Hilton (who trained Lord {NZ} through an astonishing career), Ben Ralph and Pat Quinlan.

“I was the youngest trainer ever at Caulfield when I started,” Little said. “Now I’m one of the oldest. I was actually born at Caulfield, so I haven’t gone far in life, maybe just a mile down the road.”

Little began his training career off-site, with half a dozen stables behind a house, which was how many trainers kicked off their careers.

“I was the youngest trainer ever at Caulfield when I started. Now I’m one of the oldest.” - Colin Little

“For me, it was behind my parents’ house,” he said. “Everyone seemed to have built a stable and rented it out in those days, and so many of us started that way off-track. Eventually, I was on-track, though not initially at Lord Lodge. In the 1980s, things were pretty terrible in the game, and I was lucky enough to come in here and share the stables with Ben Ralph.”

Ralph had been the foreman for Ken Hilton in the Lord days, and he succeeded the property before Little and his late wife Jacquie succeeded him. Ralph went to Epsom to join John Hawkes, leaving the Booran Road property to the Littles.

“I’ve been here ever since,” Little said. “Initially we didn’t want the house, but we couldn’t have the stables without the house, and it was a ramshackle of a place when we got it. Jacquie spent years fixing it up, every little bit of detail from the ceiling architraves down. It became a lovely old home, and one of Melbourne’s best bed-and-breakfasts.”

Lord Lodge | Image courtesy of Lord Lodge

Jacquie Little died in August 2009, an outstanding, vivacious woman within racing. She’d seen El Segundo (NZ) (Pins) win the Cox Plate for her husband, along with other notable horses through the yard, including Blutigeroo (Encounter), who won the G1 The BMW in 2007, while Ista Kareem (NZ) (Germano {GB}) won the G1 Sydney Cup in 2009.

This year, 73-year-old Little announced a co-training partnership with his assistant trainer Matthew Lindsay, who’s been with Little for over 15 years. The new arrangement will see the pair’s horses move to Nar Nar Goon, near Pakenham, on Monday, a decent clip from Caulfield.

Little will leave Lord Lodge behind after 35 years, stepping away from full-time training but remaining as a part-time presence in the training operation. He’ll live in his Black Rock apartment.

Trainer Colin Little with El Segundo after winning the G2 Dato Tan Chin Nam S. at Moonee Valley | Image courtesy of Sportpix

“Caulfield has been my whole life,” he said this week. “It’s been a bit sad but you’ve got to get on with things, and it’s been gradually winding downhill for three years. I think Tuesday is the absolute last day we can have horses here, and there’ll be no training from December 1.”

Didn’t see it coming

After a lifetime trackside, Little didn’t foresee the day when trainers would be absent from Caulfield.

“I didn’t think I’d see it in my lifetime because there’s been a sword over Caulfield for a long, long time,” the trainer said. “It was going to close, it was going to go to Epsom and, as long as I’ve been here, it was closing. I always treated that with contempt, and I really didn’t think it would happen.”

“I didn’t think I’d see it (the closure of training) in my lifetime because there’s been a sword over Caulfield for a long, long time.” - Colin Little

In 2016, the local member for Caulfield, David Southwick, pushed hard for the racetrack infield to be returned to locals. At the time, he said they needed to ‘activate the centre of the racecourse with sports like football and soccer to bring families into the area’. He said the reserve was underused.

“He said there were 15 MCGs going to waste in the middle,” Little said. “But I still didn’t think it would happen, and it was a real shock when they called us over there. The MRC, local council and Racing Victoria had got their heads together and we were out, no discussions. They did give us five years and it’s been a bit over three, with the financial incentive to go early. We’re going anyway, so why not?”

Vision for Caulfield Racecourse Reserve development | Image courtesy of Caulfield Racecourse Reserve

Since 2018, Little has been a prominent voice for displaced trainers. He has advocated for the saving of Sandown Racecourse, which is tilted for sale.

“My main concern now is that we’ve lost Caulfield training, and we should be at Sandown,” Little said. “Sandown could be the Newmarket of Australia, but they told us to forget that, that it wasn’t going to happen. I would be devastated if we lost Sandown because it’s the workhorse of Victorian racing. There isn’t a person that I know of, be it an owner, trainer or jockey, that thinks closing Sandown is a good idea.”

Little’s opinion on this is widely supported, and he called it “a tragedy” that Sandown was in danger. But he concedes that the fate of that track is out of their hands too, and so he’s getting on with the situation at hand.

“Sandown could be the Newmarket of Australia, but they told us to forget that, that it wasn’t going to happen. I would be devastated if we lost Sandown because it’s the workhorse of Victorian racing.” - Colin Little

From Monday, Lord Lodge will be empty and the trainer will relocate to his bayside apartment. For the first time in decades, there’ll be no walking out the back door straight into work.

“I don’t feel like I owe training much more,” Little said. “I’ve been in the game a very long time, and we’ve had a few years to see this week coming and to get ready for it. That’s life, and it’s a sad situation. But my bottom line is, what are we? Are we property developers or racecourses? I’d like to know.”

Colin Little
Caulfield Racecourse
Lord Lodge